First year at U of T is notoriously dispiriting. Few incoming students, even those from the most overcrowded schools in Canada, will have ever experienced anything like a lecture in Convocation Hall. First-year chemistry, political science or psychology can be slow going in any case, but perhaps especially so in a giant lecture hall that makes it difficult to engage with the lecturer and other students. Labs and tutorials do little to improve the first year experience — they are often too large for any meaningful interaction to take place. No wonder many students struggle to make it through their first year.
In an effort to compensate for this unpleasant aspect of the first-year experience at U of T, Victoria College requires that all incoming students take a first-year seminar. This requirement can be fulfilled in a variety of ways ranging from the “Pathways” seminars offered by Vic, to the “199” courses offered by most departments, to the “One” programs pioneered by Trinity College and Vic that have since been adopted by other colleges. The requirement is intended to ensure that students have a chance to engage with their peers and their instructor, and to delve deeply into a subject that interests them.
A review of Vic’s academic programs commissioned by Victoria University president Paul Gooch last year noted that the “requirement that every [Vic] student take at least one small class is one that the reviewers heartily endorse.” Given the success of the Vic small class requirement, other colleges, and perhaps the Faculty of Arts and Science as a whole, should consider adopting a similar requirement. Such a change would likely do as much as, if not more than, the new breadth requirements to improve the quality of undergraduate education at U of T.
Small courses not only represent an opportunity for students to engage more deeply with their studies, they also give them a chance to develop crucial presentation and writing skills. Unlike tutorials, where students can often coast without participating much and frequently have little interaction with their teaching assistants beyond handing in assignments, the structure of seminars requires active participation from students. This, along with requirements for formal oral presentations that are often incorporated into small courses, ensures that students develop the skills crucial for their success.
Indeed, given the success of Vic’s small course requirement in improving the first-year experience, colleges should consider creating a similar requirement for second and third year. While upper-year courses tend to be smaller than first year ones in most departments, the accompanying reduction in the number of tutorials, particularly in third year courses, is rapidly diminishing the quality of the upper-year experience. A small course requirement for second and third year could counteract this trend by offering students a further opportunity to hone their speaking and writing skills, and to pursue an aspect of their major or specialist program that particularly interests them.
Last year, Vic began to offer “Vic Two” courses on topics ranging from creative writing to China in the 21st century. These courses are open to students who have either completed a Vic One program or who have a 3.2 GPA. The Vic Two courses could be used to fulfill an upper year small course requirement. Some departments offer “299” and “399” courses, better known as “research opportunity courses,” which could also be used to fulfill the requirement. Departments could also create their own second and third year seminars on the model of the “199” courses, which would help better prepare their students for fourth year courses, and for graduate or professional schools.
Expanding the first year small course requirement to other colleges and to upper years would require additional funding. Small courses are more expensive for colleges and departments to operate than larger ones. But the benefits of small courses are significant, and they should make up an important part of the university’s commitment to improving the quality of undergraduate education. To this end, perhaps the provost, Cheryl Misak, could offer special funding to assist with the expansion of small courses as she has with the “One” programs, which recently expanded to Innis, New, St. Michael’s, University and Woodsworth Colleges.